A working group at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is working to help bring back once what was a flourishing industry of small meat processing plants in the state. Arion Thiboumery, is coordinating the effort to bring back the plants that were once a way of life for most Iowans.
Thiboumery says it used to be at one point that there was one of these small butcher shops or lockers every five miles in Iowa where people stored their meat, or brought it to be slaughtered and processed. He says the number began to drop as more and more people began shopping in supermarkets and fewer people had livestock. Thiboumery says increased regulations in the 1960’s and again in the late 1990’s made more of the shops close down.
Thiboumery says now there’s been a turnaround in people’s attitudes toward the way they purchase their meat. Thiboumery says there’s an increase consumer demand for specialty or what might be called niche meat products, be it natural, grass fed, organic, or locally produced meats. He says that led them to put together a working group. The group includes researchers, entrepreneurs, regulators and producer groups.
The goal of the working group is to help the small plants, expand, upgrade, or build new facilities. "With the hopes that if there are more facilities, or increased capacity for these facilities, that they can offer more access for small to mid-size farmers and ranchers," Thiboumery says. Thiboumery says one big part of the project is helping the owners develop business plans and skills to deal with a growing business.
He says the average age of butchers or processors is much like farmers, it has been going up each year. Thiboumery says: "A lot of these plants they don’t have computers, and their accounting system pretty much consists of a bic pen and a legal pad, if even that. So trying to help some of them with those business skills has been pretty key." Thiboumery says they also help with the planning for expanding buildings, and trying to find architects and contractors who can do the job.
Thiboumery says the plants have to be up to date with regulations and it’s easier to change plans on paper in the design phase when building than it is after the walls have already been built. Another challenge is finding willing labor. Thiboumery says there were more than 550 small processing plants in 1965 and today there are less than 200. He says organic meat says are evidence of the increase in demand that calls for more processing capacity once again.
Thiboumery says a couple of estimates show organic meat sales went up over 50-percent in 2006. He says there’s a "very large demand" and many of the plants are now running at near capacity for much of the year. Thiboumery says the "Small Meat Processors Working Group" will hold workshops that focus on marketing and business planning skills April 21 in Spirit Lake, May 15 in Ames, and June 11 in Cedar Falls.